A couple of years ago I took Aaron Sorkin’s online masterclass on screenwriting. I’m not a screenwriter, I’m just a huge fan of his and a firm believer that, by and large, writing is writing, regardless of the medium. The course mostly focused on things like storytelling, dialogue, and character development, but the most impactful lesson, for me, was about how to approach story structure.
Sorkin asks his students to visualize their story as a clothesline. At either end of that clothesline is an intention and an obstacle.
For any story to work, there needs to be a character that wants something (the intention) and there has to be something that gets in the way (the obstacle). If both of these are interesting enough, then the clothesline is pulled taut. At this point, the writer can hang as many things from it as they want: conversations, side stories, plot twists, intellectual tangents, you name it. But if the intention and the obstacle aren’t interesting enough, if they don’t keep the viewer wanting more, then the clothesline has too much slack, and those aforementioned things–conversations, side stories, what have you–start to weigh the clothesline (i.e. the story) down.
In other words, if the driving action of a story is compelling, the writer is freed up to add in as many colorful touches as he or she wants without losing the viewer’s interest. That’s when you have them.
“I worship at the altar of intention and obstacle,” Sorkin says.
If Every Blade of Grass is any indication, so does Thomas Wharton.
Despite being a page-turning epistolary romance, Wharton’s novel is about ideas: scientific discoveries, quiet pulls towards spirituality, the nature of life on Earth, and dozens of other topics. It is jam packed with interesting anecdotes and asides, but it also has an unstoppable propulsive momentum to it. For a book that teaches you a lot, it’s really hard to put down.
Why? Because Wharton’s intention and obstacle are clearly defined, and sticky as hell.
At the start of Wharton’s novel, scientist James Wheeler meets journalist Martha Geddes at a conference in Iceland in 1974. They strike up a friendship, and correspond with each other via letters over the next decade (he lives in Vancouver, she, New York). It becomes clear early on that James’ feelings for Martha are romantic, but Martha is married with a small child, so James keeps his feelings to himself.
Their chemistry, however, is undeniable. They revel in getting to know one another through personal stories, scientific discoveries, and professional curiosities. As a scientist, James has a fascinating approach to the world, and he is more than willing to share his thoughts with a willing, encouraging Martha. A journalist, Martha is just as interested in the world around her as James is. The two meet on an intellectual level, because due to Martha’s marriage, that’s all they’re able to have.
For each character, the intention and the obstacle are the same: to be with one another, but Martha’s husband is in the way.
This is what makes Wharton’s take on the epistolary format so interesting. Typically, epistolary novels are an old-fashioned way of bringing two people closer together. They are about passion. But in the case of James and Martha, the letters are a way of keeping each other at bay.
Both James and Martha seem weary of the intimacy their correspondence encourages. They avoid important details about their lives. It’s several letters before we learn about her husband and child, several more before we learn about his environmental conservation efforts. Their letter-bound connection naturally brings them closer together, but each does everything they can to resist falling for one another.
Martha’s cousin, Nancy, says as much: “…sure, the letter-writing is kind of romantic, but it’s also a way of keeping someone at a distance, isn’t it?”
The two doomed lovebirds maintain their connection by sharing the things they love, the thoughts they’re pondering, the questions their lives bring up. This is where the novel soars, and it’s the reason I’ve been describing Every Blade of Grass as less of a novel-in-letters and more as a novel-of-ideas. These are the pieces of beautiful material hanging on the clothesline.
Since Wharton packed this slim, 250-page book with so many fascinating ideas and bits of information, he needed a heck of a clothesline in order to keep things from toppling to the ground. Had his intention and obstacle not been strong enough–if the impossible romance between James and Martha weren’t so agonizingly beautiful–then we wouldn’t have the patience for all the times we veer off course. Like James’ constant, but enchanting, brand of scientific introspection.
“I don’t know if it will be of any help to you, but here is what I know unequivocally to be true: life on Earth began with an original single-celled organism, probably very much like the cyanobacteria that exists today. Over millions of years this one primitive, tiny ancestor branched out, as Darwin put it in The Origin of Species, into ‘endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.’ We humans believe we’re separate from other creatures, but we are what that first tiny spark of life eventually became. Along with every other living thing that exists, and many species that no longer do. Life has suffered catastrophic losses during Earth’s history, but it has always carried on and flourished again, and found new forms. I don’t mean to say evolution has a purpose, that it’s working toward some predetermined goal, for example us. It isn’t. If conditions had been different, human beings might never have been. But here we are, one of the many filaments of that single thread that began so long ago. In all these unimaginable eons, through all the struggles against nature’s implacable forces, the thread of life has never been broken. Living things have lived and vanished, but life has never died.”
Digressions like this are a big part of what make Every Blade of Grass so wonderful. Wharton’s format–the letter writing–allows him the ability to write about pretty well anything that interests him. Many of James and Martha’s letters aren’t all that focused on their relationship. Many are like the one above, meandering thoughts about life itself.
This epistolary format is the perfect vehicle for a writer like Wharton. The Earth–nature, science, however you’d like to frame it–seems to endlessly captivate him. This is the second novel of his I’ve read in the last three months (the other being Icefields) and it’s played a prominent role in both stories. Every Blade of Grass gives Wharton free reign to contemplate, theorize, and philosophize to his heart’s content.
These are the types of books that I love.
There’s an infectious wonder to James’ worldview, so much so that it borders on a religious experience at times.
“I’m not a mystical person, pretty much the opposite, actually, but these islands can have an effect that’s hard to describe in rational terms. Storms out of the Pacific strike the continent here first, in full fury, the waves battering the rocks with such earthshaking force that in the morning you climb out of your tent amazed to find you’re still on solid ground. Or you can wake up to a bright, sunny morning and a minute later the mist will suddenly move in out of nowhere and blank everything out. Looking up you see the towering columns of cedar and fir vanishing into a gleaming haze. When you hike inland, the quiet stillness of the deep forest is a little unnerving. Or at least it seems quiet at first compared to the noise and activity of what we generously call the civilized world. But if you stay still for a while you hear things that were there all along, the faint stir and creak and rustle of a living forest, the sounds that make up what we urbanites call silence.”
If not spiritual, there’s something at least reverential about Wharton’s approach to nature. The “stillness” he speaks of reminds me of the “quiet hum” you hear many new age religious folk talking about when they talk about their relationship with God. It’s the presence of an other, an unknown. There but not there, present but intangible.
Like James, I’m not a mystical person (pretty much the opposite), but it’s hard not to feel inspired by where we are and what we’re made of. He never mentions him in the book, but I’m guessing James was a pretty big fan of Carl Sagan.
“There is a wide, yawning black infinity. In every direction, the extension is endless; the sensation of depth is overwhelming. And the darkness is immortal. Where light exists, it is pure, blazing, fierce; but light exists almost nowhere, and the blackness itself is also pure and blazing and fierce.”
— Carl Sagan
I book ended my reading of Every Blade of Grass, coincidentally, with two great stories about the “unnerving” place we call the wilderness: Into the Wild and Stranger in the Woods (joint-review to come). I seem inexplicably drawn to the outdoors these days, despite the fact that I spend much of my time curled up in books (maybe precisely because I spend so much of my time this way).
While reading Wharton all I wanted to do was go outside. It’s impossible not to feel inspired by him, activated in some way.
These moments felt so much more important to me than the frame story. But it must be said that the arc of the novel is quite beautiful, and as captivating as romance I’ve read. James and Martha offer up a pretty fun ride.
That being said, an Every Blade of Grass review would feel incomplete without mentioning how sad that romance can be, and often is. Unrequited love can be tough to take, and a few of the turns go from dark to darker. Unsurprisingly, Wharton finds a way to shine a light.
One of the letters talks about the Japanese art of kintsugi. This involves the mending of broken pottery with lacquer and gold or silver to make something even more beautiful than before. The idea is that you don’t try to hide the damage, you make it part of the history of the object.
Kintsugi is a concept that my wife and I have been talking about for years without a word to mark its significance. Now I have one. It plays a pretty huge role in James and Martha’s story, as you might expect. But what’s important is that they make the bad times a part of their story. It’s a feature, not a bug. They embrace the bad times, they recognize them as a part of their history. No judgment, just reflection. It’s important. As is so much of this novel.
Unfortunately, Every Blade of Grass isn’t an easy novel to find. At least not in print. That’s because Wharton went rogue with his latest book and self-published the thing.
When asked why, Wharton said, “partly because I wanted to learn how to do all of this for myself, partly because I’m cheap, but mostly because of freedom. I mean the daily rush of freedom I felt now that so much of the journey from manuscript to finished book was in my control.”
He designed his own cover. He edited his own manuscript. He promoted it himself. He even put together a soundtrack for the book, complete with descriptions of the scenes each song represents.
But what he gained in gumption and old fashioned know-how, he likely lost in conventional readership. If you’re an e-reader, you’ll be fine. If you’re a print reader, you’re likely out of luck. It received a very limited print run, and copies are difficult to find at this point.
The book doesn’t come with shiny blurbs from famous authors (although it could have), it doesn’t come with a long list of awards (even though he’s won many before), so readers will need to trust their instincts, and hopefully, the word of a trusted blogger or two.
Trust me, this book is well worth your time.
Another Quote I Love: “The Inuit apparently have no words to differentiate human beings from other living things; in other words, no ‘it.’ What I’d like to think this means—and I’m making a completely unfounded assumption here—is that they’ve never needed such a word because they don’t see themselves as separate from the world around them in the way we do.”
Awards Won: Wharton won the “Best First Book” Canada and Caribbean division of the Commonwealth Prize in 1995, with Icefields. It was also a finalist for Canada Reads in 2008. His second novel, Salamander, was short-listed for the Governor General’s Award. His third novel, The Logogryph, was short-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
He Writes for the Kids, Too: Wharton also wrote a YA-fantasy series starting with The Shadow of Malabron.
Read Every Blade of Grass if… You’re a fan of epistolary novels like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Ella Minnow Pea, or Fanny Hill.